Photo: flickr/Joe Cressy

We see them in every election campaign: lines, grids and maps of all kinds. We fill out a form with a few or a lot of questions and find ourselves represented as a dot, usually on a grid opposing social (up or down) and economic (left or right) liberalism or conservatism. We shrug our shoulders at the result, maybe share it on Facebook, and then forget about it. But this idea that we can plot every political ideology and set of beliefs on a simple grid has become such an ordinary way of talking about politics that we take it for granted, even as it’s dangerously misleading. When we think of political concepts and policies this way, we all lose. Here’s how.

Moving to the ‘centre’ to appeal to ‘right’ voters

I have been a proud member of the NDP for years, having come from a family that has long supported that party and its ideals. My mother volunteered with Henry Morgentaler’s first clinic in Newfoundland, long before the governing parties of Canada supported a woman’s right to choose. My grandparents’ generation included one of Labrador’s first union organizers. Progressive politics runs in my family. 

So I found myself dismayed to see Tom Mulcair purposely frame his new direction for the NDP as tacking to the centre, especially since he has compared his policy strategy to that of Tony Blair’s leadership of New Labour in the 1990s. First, after the disaster of Iraq, any progressive political leader would have to be a fool to say in public that he is anything like Blair. Given what I’ve said about my familial bonafides on the progressive left, you might suspect that you already know all of what I’m about to say: that the NDP must restore its place on the traditional left and give up this tack to the centre, which would abandon fighting neoliberal abuses of working people. 

You’re wrong. 

Finding the best concepts 

Traditional NDP policies such as strong unions, fair wages and a broadly socialist political order do not constitute the ‘left’ in any simple sense. All the policies, positions and concepts that exist on the left, the right and the centre do not make good bedfellows, and often completely contradict each other. 

For an example on the right, ask yourself what the most terrifyingly hedonistic Bay Street stockbroker has to do with a fundamentalist evangelical Albertan rancher, other than voting Conservative. If the pious rancher emerging from his mega-church knew what that stockbroker was doing with those six bags of different pills and powders on his yacht, he wouldn’t want to share the country with him, let alone sit in the same house of parliament. Modern conservatism, as a vote, includes a variety of mutually contradictory perspectives and movements. 

The same goes for the left. Consider this scenario. A major oil company announces that their workforce will consist entirely of locally sourced labour, all of whom will be unionized, paid wages well above the current industry standard and have access to top-quality health insurance and an excellent pension plan, while worker safety will be the company’s top priority on-site. The environmental effects of their work would be devastating. A union leader would be a fool not to accept this deal. But unions and environmentalists are both on ‘the left.’ How can this happen? 

It can happen because these words ‘left,’ ‘centre’ and ‘right’ are essentially meaningless, misinterpreted more often than they are understood, on those few times when their meaning is even clear enough from their use. If you truly want to understand someone’s politics, you have to ask them more precise questions about their actual political and moral principles, not just say what direction they can be plotted on a grid. 

The great electoral error 

If Mulcair follows the model he seems to have chosen, it will lead to electoral disaster for the NDP. The common interpretation of political triangulation is to achieve a new take on the centre by dosing your leftist beliefs with a touch of the right. Given what we’ve established about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of these directional terms, this is a meaningless idea. But the NDP seems to be adopting triangulation as its technique to win elections in Canada. After all, it worked for Blair and Bill Clinton. 

But look what happened. Andrea Horwath, a textbook triangulator in the Ontario’s provincial election this year. She developed a populist political platform that had no conceptual unity at all; it was little more than an arbitrary grab-bag of empty rhetoric and tax cut goodies, coated in language (like her constant references to ‘job creators’) that could have been taken from Paul Ryan’s PR. It was a campaign that conceived of Tim Hudak sympathizers and right-leaning Liberal supporters as static bodies with simple political thoughts who could be seduced with rhetorical flourishes. The sad truth is, they’re people. 

The result was an NDP that lost its kingmaking power in the Liberal minority government a year earlier than it had to and its leader should have been humiliated. In interviews after the vote, longtime Trinity-Spadina MPP Rosario Marchese all but blamed Horwath’s strategy for draining the support that cost him his seat. NDP loyalists told him that his party’s leader reminded them of Mike Harris. 

A leader should not strategize, but think 

Mulcair seems to be taking a similar path going into the federal election of 2015, and he will probably face a worse result than Horwath, as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are succeeding in painting themselves as Canada’s true progressive party. How much of this is a bald lie will be apparent if we find ourselves in revolt against Prime Minister Trudeau II in 2016. 

Mulcair’s campaign will crash and burn if he attempts the same empty triangulation strategy of the Horwath train wreck. You will not capture the vote of a ‘right-leaning’ citizen by adopting policies that oppose the political philosophies of social progress, human dignity and environmentalism, when these ideas are the ostensible core that holds your coalition together. You will only appear insincere and untrustworthy, someone willing to say anything to get elected. That’s what your enemies in the 2012 leadership convention called you, Tom Mulcair. I saw how you walked away from a cabinet post in the Quebec government when you put your environmentalist values first: that’s why I believed in you two years ago. 

Triangulation in this facile sense also keeps political leaders from honestly dealing with difficult issues.

The NDP, in this case, has been uncharacteristically silent on the current conflict in Israel and the related ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq. Taking sides on the issue is bound to alienate someone, even the only sensible route of simply calling for all parties to end war. Fear of losing electoral support over a controversial issue results in silence on what matters most. 

Clinton and Blair’s reformulations of their left-leaning parties’ philosophies weren’t triangulations in the sense of drawing converging lines on a political compass map. They were reacting to a complex situation in their societies: nearly two decades influenced by culturally and economically conservative leadership under Reagan and Thatcher ruined the popular credibility of left voices, so they had to smuggle what few progressive policies could hide in the rhetoric and legislative frameworks of economic conservatism. This is the true complexity of politics. 

The power of politics lie in social movements 

Complexity is something that the theorists of facile ‘triangulation’ in electoral campaigns fail to understand. A truly successful political movement captures and shapes the winds of social change. It must unite complex and contrary political ideologies in a multifaceted vision for the whole country that unites diverse and disparate interests. Simultaneously, for a country as diverse as Canada, it must tailor its emphases and priorities to local conditions wherever it goes. The farm belt needs a different left than the rust belt, and genuinely successful political leadership must contain those multitudes. 

It also means that the usual critique of Mulcair’s ‘centrist’ moves does not apply either. Returning to the traditional values of the Douglas and Broadbent eras of the NDP would render the party politically irrelevant. A popular left for the 2010s must articulate progressive ideas for a globalized economy, a catastrophic gap between the rich and the world’s people, a media of the internet and smartphones, state politics dominated by the Harper Conservatives for the last decade, the historic challenges of Idle No More, and the unfolding crisis of climate change. 

Politics is the expression of the problems and concerns of millions of people in the organization of economic and social life. It requires more complexity in thinking than the ability to draw some lines and dots on a piece of paper.

Adam Riggio is an editor, university teacher, author, philosopher, and playwright living in Hamilton, Ontario. He has a PhD from McMaster University, and tweets at @adamriggio. He regularly blogs about his research for his books on ecological and utopian political movements at Adam Riggio Writes.

Photo: flickr/Joe Cressy